From time to time I will post writing assignments from my various classes, back dated to the date of writing, but always tagged under Higher Ed. This assignment was a final essay from my Minnesota State and Local Government class
One of the odd but essential devices of storytelling is the dichotomy, a set of opposites that on the surface are incompatible; yet fascinate us by their ability to coexist. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Considered today as one of the major authors of the twentieth century, Fitzgerald’s life, mirrored in his novels, tragically represented two opposed ideas, the two sides of the American Dream – wealth and success versus excess and failure.
It is almost impossible to separate the man from the influences of the places he lived. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life in the Midwest, St. Paul in particular, appears as a recurring theme in much of his writing, with bits and pieces of his own internal struggles infused. This becomes clear if you think of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis as almost a dyadic characterization of the twin pillar values Scott’s characters grapple with in many of his stories. Fitzgerald’s notion of the collision of “Old Money” and “New Money” may have been influence by his life in St. Paul, where those in Minneapolis were seen to have recently acquired riches, while those in St. Paul had inherited theirs. This is evident in his novel The Great Gatsby by the two “twin cities” of West Egg and East Egg.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born into an upper-middle-class family, on September 24, 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father, a failed furniture merchant, took a job on the East Coast, so Scott spent the first 10 or so years of his life in New York. In 1908, his father, having lost his job yet again, moved the young family back to St. Paul, where Scott attended the St. Paul Academy. At 13 he wrote his first story, which was published in the school newspaper. When he was 15, his parents sent him back to the East Coast to attend the parochial Newman School in New Jersey. While there he was encouraged to write by one of the priests.
Scott stayed in New Jersey, attending Princeton University where he continued to write stories, articles, and scripts. Unfortunately, he spent so much time writing that he ignored his studies and was placed on academic probation, eventually dropping out of college to join the army. In 1917, he was stationed at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery Alabama, where he met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre, who refused to marry him because he wasn’t rich or famous enough. A few years later, his first novel This Side of Paradise, sold over 50,000 copies, was an immediate success, making him both rich and famous, finally convincing Zelda to marry him. Even their marriage showed some signs of duality, a union some would say not of opposites, but almost of twins who both inspired and tormented each other.
During their tempestuous years together the Fitzgeralds moved quite a bit and lived extravagantly, making many trips to Europe where they ran in artistic social circles. One notable friend was Ernest Hemmingway, who famously did not like Zelda and called Scott’s means of supporting himself through the sale of magazine stories, whoring.
In 1921, at the very dawn of the Roaring Twenties, Scott and Zelda’s first and only child was born. They named her Frances Scott Fitzgerald, and called her Scottie. Shortly after Scottie’s birth the family moved back to St. Paul, ostensibly to settle down, though throughout their lives, the Fitzgeralds continued to live beyond their means even though they were in constant financial trouble.
Possibly Fitzgerald’s most famous characterization of dichotomy, Jay Gatsby, who is thought to be patterned after Fitzgerald himself, is actually patterned heavily after a minor character called Trimalchio in Petronius’ ancient Roman novel Satyricon. In fact, Fitzgerald considered Trimalchio as a possible title for The Great Gatsby. Trimalchio is a former slave who has gained power and wealth through hard work; he is married to Fortunata, also a former slave. Like Gatsby, and his creator Fitzgerald, Trimalchio is famous for throwing over-the-top parties, in which he seeks to impress his nouveau riche guests, but instead succumbs to the corrosive effects of wealth and a decadent lifestyle. Fitzgerald himself further sums up this duplicity in his own words:
“That was always my experience – a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton … However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.”
Tragically, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, while writing The Last Tycoon, believing that he was a failed writer. Just five short years later, 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were sent overseas to American soldiers that were serving in WWII, ushering in a revival of his work. Excess and failure in the pursuit of success and wealth, the two opposed ideas brought so beautifully and painfully together in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, tragically were the twin oppositions that contributed to his own demise.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. F. Scott Fitzgerald; a descriptive bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972. Print.
Eble, Kenneth Eugene. F. Scott Fitgerald. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1977. Print.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
Stavros Frangoulidis. Classical Philology. Vol. 103, No. 1 (January 2008). Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
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